A week before the Season began, as Mrs. Vanessa Saunders held brunch court at the Empire Hotel, a photo appeared on her phone: a large oak door beneath a pale green sign with silver lettering. Impossible, she thought, flipping the infernal device over before Mrs. Lillian Talbott and Mrs. Caroline Rankenfall, her Fête Noire Charity Ball co-chairs, could glimpse it.
But then their screens lit up too.
“The Atelier!” Lilian murmured. “Impossible!” She shifted in her seat, aware the others were watching her. “I just need to run to the ladies’ room.” Her chair screeched backwards, until Vanessa locked the other woman in her gaze, and held her there.
“Unseelie Brothers,” Caroline said, oblivious to the battle of wills. “My mother used to talk about their gowns. Didn’t you have one, Vanessa? I remember the Post called it—”
Vanessa Saunders’ eyelid twitched. “The Gown of Flowers. Wouldn’t part with it for the world.” She signaled the waiter. “Too bad they’re too late for the Season. Only a fool would try to cancel a Dior or Balenciaga order now, especially on a Saturday. My Merielle has had dresses for months.”
“Oh absolutely, us too,” Lilian Talbott said, trying to rise with both grace and speed.
Around them, other phones lit up with the same excitement. The designer who promised the most beautiful gowns, usually delivered them, then disappeared, was back, and seeking a select few who would gain entrance, but only if they could find the shop. The Empire’s rooftop restaurant swelled with the news that Unseelie Brothers Ltd. had been spotted near Lexington and 78th and then vanished. Women began to gather their purses.
Chin up, with a casual glance at her watch, Vanessa rose from her chair. “There’s always quite a cost associated with these things. We’ll meet again next week. Dear Lilian, can you manage the check?”
Trapped, Lilian nodded, chewing her lip as tables emptied, her fork tumbling noisily to the floor. She watched helplessly as Vanessa led the charge to pull children out of Saturday classes and locate the mythical atelier before anyone else.
from The Social Season, plate 6. The Dress of Mists – Worn by Miss Eurydice Louise, née Mumford Von Hiefenlagger, future Duchess of Ladenspiel, to the Women’s Junior League Winter Ball in 1879. Photo by Jeremy Avedon (possible ancestor of Richard Avedon). This event was notable for several reasons, including the young man who went missing (a rumor) and the number of proposals for that evening. Designer: Beauregard Von Unseelie.
from The Social Season, plate 22. The Suit of Swords – Worn by Prince Reza IV of Persia to the Historical Museum Ball and Gala (before it was replaced by the Artisan’s Fête, and other titles) in 1956. Photo courtesy of the former Ambassador to _______. A shining entrée into the rather staid men’s fashions of the time (white tie, tails), the suit was made to be seen. The event was notable for the number of duels (two) it produced, as well as two couples who were never heard from again (confirmed, assumed elopements). Designer: David d’Unseelie.
Sera Sebastian was too uninterested, and too poor, to worry about the Season. “We have new designs due next week, Rie. And our senior projects. We need to think about graduating. Focus,” she reminded her best friend and cousin, Merielle.
Rie, having recently endured months of fittings at her mother’s insistence, groaned and stared over her shoulder at the bulky coat she’d drawn atop a Fashion Institute-approved croquis. “I think I hate fashion.” She held a bolt of sky blue fabric as Sera draped a mannequin in color.
“I think this will work,” Sera murmured around a mouthful of pins as she arranged fabric and fondly ignored her cousin.
“You’re the one with the talent. I wish I could have worn your gown—” Rie began, as an elevator outside their studio dinged, and Sera chewed her lip. Focus. Yes.
The afternoon sun slanted perfectly through the windows across the beginnings of Sera’s latest design as Mrs. Saunders navigated a forest of dress forms, stools, and workbenches. When she was close enough to touch her daughter’s elbow, she shot a look at Sera that forbade protest. “Merielle. You must come,” she urged. “Unseelie Brothers—the shop that made my gown—has returned! You must find it before anyone else.”
“Mother, I have plenty of dresses and Sera needs—” Rie began.
“Sera understands, and will help us, won’t you, sweetheart?” Mrs. Saunders nodded at Sera, who was already folding her work away, unwilling to fight with her aunt. Rie’s mother paid for Sera’s art classes. She’d threatened more than once to stop if Sera crossed her too much.
Sera’s pulse pounded in her ears. Angry, yes. And curious. She’d heard so many stories about this shop. She and Rie had both seen its creations, including their mothers’ gowns in photographs and discussed in fashion classes. She’d even gotten close enough to almost touch one, once, in Mrs. Saunders’ walk-in closet, as she and Rie were having an after-school snack while Rie’s nanny dozed. “Are you certain?” She hesitated.
“You’ll go!” her aunt said, with the same insistence as she’d used when Sera’s jam-sticky fingers had nearly touched those amazing chiffon flowers that seemed almost alive. The dress hung in its own display frame in the closet, lit from above and below, looking as perfect as it must have a decade before, when Mrs. Saunders wore it and a pair of elbow length calfskin gloves to the Winter Charity Ball. The Gown of Flowers had little competition that year, eclipsed only by Sera’s mother’s own dress, The Butterfly Gown. Which, that dress having disappeared long ago, Sera couldn’t touch at all, so she’d wanted to hold the next best thing. There had been a lot of shouting, back then, an abrupt yank away, and a stern talk with Sera’s father. No one crossed Mrs. Saunders. Or her closet.
Now, Rie closed her sketchbook tightly on the croquis. She put her colored pencils in their case. Sera gazed at the draped cloth she’d just begun to imagine as movement and light in human form, and did the same, feeling resigned. She took one small risk, hoping to free herself from this latest task. “Don’t you want to hunt for the shop yourself, Aunt Vanessa?”
At Sera’s question, the older woman paled. “They might not allow me back inside.” She said it quickly, and Sera wondered if she’d misheard, because a moment later, her aunt pulled herself up to her full height and chuckled, “How silly. I’m a paying customer in good standing. We’ll be fine. You’ll locate the shop and you’ll call me. I’ll stop at the bank, as they expect cash from those who can afford their fees. Go!”
She herded the two young women out of studio. Once on the street, Rie glanced occasionally at the image of the door on her phone, while Sera kept her eyes peeled. After only a few blocks, they caught sight of the Talbott twins, weaving their way down Madison Avenue. A cab ride later, they spotted Odelle Rankenfall and her friend Elizabeth Dorchester in the West Village, peering into alleys and checking the map on their phones. They weren’t the only ones on the hunt. Silently, Sera wished them well.
The girls turned left at 68th, near a shuttered chocolate shop, and veered almost too close to their favorite second-hand store. “No, not today.” Sera pulled Rie away from the window, knowing she would be in trouble, not Rie, if they didn’t at least put on a good show of finding the store. They took the subway to 35th, and walked the garment district until their feet ached, without finding the green sign. The sun was sinking into the fangs of the towers when Sera muttered, “Oh, dammit.”
Because there it was. Just as Mrs. Saunders had, over numerous dinners and brunches, described how she’d come by her own spectacular gown for her debut Season. How she’d captured the heart of her very own prince that night—in the form of Mr. Saunders, and in no small part because of her perfect gown. She left out details, of course. Including important ones concerning Sera’s mother.
Sera and Rie stood before the broad oak doors, wound with metal vines for hinges, set beside a narrowly arched, darkened window. Sera remembered those details and shivered. It was all a little bit strange, the way the story changed each time her aunt told it, and to whom: how she and her sister Serena spent all they had on their gowns—The Butterfly Gown and The Gown of Flowers—or that they’d gotten them last minute, at discount, or that they had been surprised with them by a well-off relative—and then how well they’d done at the ball, how lucky Mr. Saunders and Mr. Sebastian had been.
Whatever the story, Sera was quite certain that moments before the shop had not been on 38th street, crammed between an established jeweler and a new shoe store. But there it was, green sign swinging above the window and blank, headless mannequins, peering out at the street. Beyond the muslin models stretched velvet darkness, (pricked by a few tiny lights, Sera thought, but couldn’t be sure).
“It’s closed,” Rie sighed, similarly relieved. The green sign swung in the wind as she texted her mother the news. Her fingers had barely left the screen when the phone rang. Even Sera could hear her aunt’s joy over the speaker, demanding the address.
“Don’t DO anything until I get there. Don’t touch anything! And absolutely do not let it leave!”
The young women stared at each other, unsure of how to accomplish either order, much less both.
A couple pushed past them on the sidewalk, eyes on one another. A woman with a double stroller gave them a wide berth, plowing towards some distant goal. Sera’s stomach growled and she thought impatiently of her design project. Due in two weeks, and still just a bolt of fabric. She wanted to get back to the studio, now that she’d done what Rie’s mother had wanted. Still, she felt a moment of pride. Despite not having the right pedigree for the Season, she’d found the shop that everyone who did was searching for.
Her mother had worn one of these gowns, yes. But her mother was long gone, wasn’t she. And the gown with her, only a few months after Sera was born. When asked, Aunt Vanessa would purse her lips and shake her head, as if implying Sera herself might have had something to do with that. She fled. Such disgrace, such a flighty girl. Not suited for this world.
To avoid her aunt’s reprobation, Sera resolved early not to be curious about the shop, or the Season, though sometimes she couldn’t help it.
The sign, the name—Unseelie Brothers—made Sera wonder who was behind the doors. What magic could they work, what could she learn, given the opportunity?
These gowns had brought everyone in her life together: her aunt and Mr. Saunders. Her mother and her father. But not quite in the same ways. Sam Sebastian had been working the event, not attending, when Serena and Vanessa had appeared at the ball. Serena had become Sera’s father’s muse that very night. And despite everyone’s cautions, they’d married even more quickly, at the courthouse. Sera, born seven months after that, was, according to her aunt’s taut words, a perfect scandal.
But now that Sera had found the store, perhaps her aunt would let up a little on the reprobation. Maybe, Sera thought, I’ll get a peek inside, before getting the heck out of here. But the window was too dark. The door, very much locked.
At least the shop was staying put.
Rie slumped against an oak panel, scrolling her phone. “I don’t want to do the Season, not without you, Sera. I hate the balls. And the stodgy people. I refuse to try on any more gowns. Your dress would have been so much better.”
Sera, having less than no choice in that matter, kept quiet. She’d offered to design a gown for her cousin months ago. Rie had said a delighted yes. Then Mrs. Saunders found out, and then everyone pretended as if that had never happened.
Twenty minutes passed before a yellow cab screeched to a stop beside them. Rie’s mother emerged, ensconced in a green Versace cape and pale gloves, gold and gems glittering among the layers, her makeup perfectly retouched to make her seem even more intimidating. How she’d had time to freshen up and go to the bank, both, baffled Sera.
Mrs. Saunders beamed at her daughter, paid the driver, and, once she’d pulled the rest of her cloak from the cab, stared at the door in disbelief, edged with something like fear. Sera had never seen her aunt look afraid.
“It looks just the same.” Mrs. Saunders reached a gloved hand towards the door. Quickly, she recoiled and shook her fingers as if the handle had stung her. “What now, what now. I need a pen.” She looked left and right, then dug in her handbag, as the Talbott twins rounded the corner at a run.
“Mum!” Rie said, more due to the energy of the hunt and the fact that she found the twins awful and pushy than out of any desire to gain entrance to a closed shop.
Sera offered Mrs. Saunders a plastic sharpie marker—Call 1-800-ArtSupply—and her aunt scribbled a note on the glove, signed her name with a flourish and stuffed it through the door’s mail slot.
They waited, feeling ridiculous, as the Talbott twins edged closer, texting.
No one seemed more surprised than Mrs. Saunders when the lights came on inside the atelier immediately. And no one was more shocked than Sera, when she glimpsed her own long-gone mother’s face in the shadows of the shop.
“Aunt Vanessa—look,” Sera whispered, before the doors swung open, then began to shut again.
“Quickly.” Mrs. Saunders pushed them over the threshold. The doors slammed closed right in front of the Talbott twins, their chiseled GQ smiles tumbling into glares at the window.
“We’ve done it!” Mrs. Saunders clapped her hands—one gloved, one ungloved—together. She peered into the darkness. “Hello?”
Sera heard the rustle of wings.
She realized she could not move. None of them were able to step beyond the row of mannequins, any further into the shop. Mrs. Saunders tried, calling out in dismay. Rie was too entranced by the sparkling ceiling to notice.
Did I really see my mother? Sera started to doubt. The face had been young—her age, not sun-spotted like her aunt’s. Probably just my own reflection.
Then a gust of wind battered them, smelling like it came from deep within the earth.
“Welcome!” A tall young man in a quilted jacket and chiffon skirt beamed at the trio, the curve of his lips a mere tolerance, though his eyes sparkled. His hair was a deep purple and his fingers, when he clasped Sera’s hand, were long and pale. “What have we here?” He moved on to Rie, staring deep into her green eyes. “Ahhh, the Season must be upon us. And this is New York, am I right?”
As if there were any question. As if Rie’s mother wasn’t already messaging her co-chairs to let them know she’d gained entrance first. When the young man approached her, Sera and Rie were stunned to see Mrs. Saunders dip the deepest curtsey possible to him. “Sir. I paid for a gown from your shop, long ago. I wish another for my daughter. Whatever the cost.”
A smile broke across the man’s still face. “Vanessa. How nice to see you again. Please call me Beau. And gowns for both young ladies?”
“Both?” Sera’s aunt blinked, confused. Then she said, “No. For my Merielle. The other’s not mine.”
Sera took a long survey of the shop’s black and white walls, blinking once or twice. But she stayed quiet. She’d be able to leave her aunt’s presence soon, having done her duty. She wondered if she might return and look around the shop again later.
As if he could read her thoughts, the atelier’s owner smiled even more sharply. “Then perhaps she is ours,” he said, under his breath. He turned back to Rie, not looking anywhere but her eyes. “You will do nicely.”
Rie bristled, and Sera did as well. But Mrs. Saunders caught each girl by an arm, her fingers sharp on their sleeves, freezing them both. “Merielle will be delighted, sir.”
At the slightest twitch of the young man’s hand, the three of them moved forward, beyond the row of mannequins. Before them, a broad, velvet-curtained clearing took up the center of the shop, its circumference sparkling with mirrors. Several soft benches, patterned in vines, invited, but Sera didn’t dare sit down.
Shop attendants’ shadows played around the edges of things. One, Sera noticed, had a mouth that glittered with pins.
Beyond the mirrors, Sera saw once more her mother’s face, as young as she’d been in the only photograph Sera’s father had kept. As still as that photograph, in fact. Sera was disappointed to discover more life-sized images displayed around the showroom. Girls and boys, all Rie’s and Sera’s ages, captured in black and white along the walls. Sera’s mother among them. Not real, then. Nor her dress of butterflies.
Rie whispered again, but this time her voice had a tinge of awe. “Loooook.” She pulled Sera towards a sparkling strapless gown, slit up the side, a glittering beaded confection gracing the sheerest fabric Sera had ever seen. She read the label. “The Ice Queen.”
“Absolutely not,” Rie’s mother steered them back to pictures of thousand-button silks and gently draped sleeves in the shop catalogue. Sera tried not to get caught wrinkling her nose. The designs didn’t seem groundbreaking at all. They looked a bit fussy, most of them, except The Ice Queen. That one practically danced by itself.
“Mother.” Now Rie was not whispering.
“We will conspire for something very special,” Beau gestured at someone beyond the mirrors. Moments later, a dress was laid across his arms like a child. Behind him, two assistants carried shoes and necklaces. Mrs. Saunders looked at them hungrily.
“We thought the young lady might be interested in something more.” With a flourish, a muslin dress hung between the mirrors and Rie’s eyes went wide as a projector illuminated it with a design: a flock of white birds circling the waist and bust.
“Oh,” she whispered, entranced.
“The Murmuration,” Beau intoned.
“Perhaps,” Mrs. Saunders said.
Sera, momentarily freed as her cousin became lost in the attention, texted her father where they were. Would you like to have dinner? It would be good to see him. She settled in to wait for Mrs. Saunders to release her completely, occasionally murmuring “That’s lovely,” before turning back to her phone, waiting on his reply. Her stomach growled.
“We are sorry, Miss, no phones allowed in the store, you understand.” A soft voice, right at Sera’s ear.
Sera startled. For one moment, the shopgirl with the mouthful of pins seemed to bristle—cheeks, shoulders, nose, lips—outlined in sharp metal. Then the light shifted, and the girl gazed pale-eyed at Sera, a jewel-pierced eyebrow raised.
“I apologize.” Sera stuffed her phone in her pocket. She picked at the smooth cushion and watched her best friend emerge from the dressing room once more and parade the mirrors in a different muslin, with pale flames lapping the hemline. “The Bonfire.”
“I think not,” Mrs. Saunders said, tersely.
This is going to be a long evening. Sera felt the trap close over her, locking her away from her project. Sera’s unofficial role for as long as she could remember had been acting as a mirror for Rie: encouragement or discouragement, or both. Rie had refused all invitations to the Season’s charity balls, until Mrs. Saunders declared that Sera would be allowed to watch from the galleries. “Maybe she’ll pick up some ideas for her own shop someday. If you agree to go.”
How Sera disliked being used in this way. But Vanessa was her mother’s sister. Her father had said they needed to be patient with her demands. Her mother’s disappearance had been a terrible loss, for all of them. “It makes her try to control everything,” he’d explained, drying Sera’s tears after the incident with the dress. “So that nothing more can disappear.”
Now Mrs. Saunders looked as watchful as a hunter, at Beau, as if the atelier might evaporate at any moment. At the door, as if the Talbotts might burst in. At anything but the photographs on the walls.
“Do not worry, Madame Vanessa. As long as you are here and our fees are paid, no one else may enter,” Beau said, reading her mind. “As a valued client, in good standing, your happiness, and your daughter’s, are our sole focus.”
Mrs. Saunders nodded, relieved. She sat heavily on Sera’s couch, the bulk of her cloak nearly pushing Sera off the edge. Sera rose and drifted towards the rejected gowns to study how they were made. Her fingers grazed the glowing beads of The Ice Queen and its neighbors. The delicate fabric—what did the shop favor? Charmeuse? Velvet? Crepe? Not quite any of those. And the way even the muslin mock-ups were constructed! She could barely see the seams.
By the time she turned back to her cousin, Rie had rejected “Nature Conquers,” which looked like living vines wrapping her from neck to feet. Mrs. Saunders had waved away “Ad Astra” as being far too bright. And no one was interested in “The Warrior,” which, to Sera’s touch, was not made of fabric at all, but the lightest and smallest of chain mail.
Sera’s stomach growled. Dinner. Necessary. Soon, she texted quickly to Rie, trying to not get caught. She saw her father had answered—How dare she take you there? Then Mrs. Saunders’ own phone was an angry bee in her handbag. Mrs. Saunders ignored the noise, her eyes on the atelier.
Come home, Sera’s father texted again. I’ll make pizza.
At a glare from Mrs. Saunders, Sera put her phone away.
A necklace dangled from a nearby hanger, sharp, like Sera’s hunger. She unclasped it and lifted the links towards her neck, hesitating with the clasp.
Long fingers covered her own. “Let me do this for you,” the shop owner said. His voice was soft. “The connection has a trick to it.”
When he’d finished, Sera looked in the mirror and jumped a little. Her mother’s photograph, behind her, appeared in the mirror as well. Serena. Her gown had been made of butterflies. In the photograph, they’d seemed about to fly away.
Standing in front of this image, Sera touched the necklace that wrapped her throat in thorns. She loved it immediately.
“It suits you,” the shopgirl whispered.
“You must have it,” the owner agreed.
“I could never,” Sera replied firmly, though her fingers drifted the cool metal. The way it felt against her skin? As if she was prepared for battle, as if even the worst of her was better than the best of so many others? Oh she wanted it. “I can’t imagine what it costs.”
She began to take it off, but her fingers could not find the clasp.
“It likes you,” the shopgirl whispered, through her mouth filled with pins. “We are looking for afternoon help, if you would like to trade. Only until the Season begins.”
A week’s time. Impossible. She had classes.
“I have nowhere to wear it,” Sera protested, but she knew she was already going to say yes. A job, in fashion.
“But Sera? Our classes!” Rie’s voice from the fitting room, came in quiet, jealous protest. As if her mother would allow her to do such a thing.
Sera nodded once, fast, before they could take the offer back.
The shopgirl winked, a smile spreading wider than Sera thought possible. “I’m Dora. I’m the newest here…or was!” She disappeared, then returned holding a contract still warm from the printer. “All you have to do is sign.”
Sera liked that feeling, of being included, not just dragged along. But then she hesitated. “I haven’t—I need to ask my dad.” He would want to know. He wouldn’t like it.
She gestured to take of the necklace and Dora shook her head. “Enjoy it—we know you’ll be back!” It was a gesture of trust that made Sera want to say yes right there, but she resisted.
Meantime, Rie and her mother had agreed upon a gown—The Murmuration, with some adjustments.
“It is a good, safe, dress,” Mrs. Saunders smiled. “Not too much. But sure to make a lasting impression.”
Rie sighed, the Ice Queen Gown, and, Sera realized, her own designs, almost entirely forgotten. “I think it’s the best one.”
“There will be one more fitting,” the owner boomed. “And when is the event?”
When Mrs. Saunders named the date, Beau’s eyebrows rose nearly to his hairline. “That soon.”
There was a long, dark pause. Rie turned to her mother, eyes welling with want. She’d shifted to certainty, in love with an impossible gown, in love with the idea of appearing before everyone who mattered, in that gown. So much for everything she’d said about Sera’s work. About the Season itself.
Sera crumbled her fist as if she could squash the designs she’d drawn for Rie, in secret. Her other hand went to her neck, where the necklace was. She would say yes, no matter what her father thought.
Rie’s mother looked nervously between Rie’s expression and the smile Beau aimed at her, possibly remembering her own ball. “We will, of course, pay for the expedience,” Mrs. Saunders said. “I will need time to gather the funds.”
“Then we will see you again, at this time next week.” The young man held out his arms as if he would embrace them all.
When the doors swung wide again, it was as if no time had passed outside. The Talbott twins were waiting with their mother. Both boys peered inside the shop excitedly as Mrs. Saunders swept Rie and Sera past the bare mannequins, and then out the door, very pleased with herself. “Good luck, Lilian!” she called, magnanimously, before hailing a cab.
“A job? No.”
“Dad, please. If I can do it, then I’ll have something amazing on my resume—imagine if you’d gotten a solo show at the Whitney, while still at the institute—please.” Sera hated begging, but she’d never seen him so resolute. It was true that everyone at the atelier had seemed a little sharp-edged, but they knew so many things about fashion that she didn’t. “It’s real world experience.” She didn’t mention the necklace, which she’d hidden with a carefully draped scarf.
“You’re nineteen. If I try to stop you, that will only make things worse.” He barely turned from the charcoal sketch he was working on, a whirl of butterflies, white on a thick, gray sheet of paper. His hand shook.
She let the tears build up at the back of her eyes. She wanted his approval. The silence became unbreathable.
Finally, he filled it. “Your aunt should know better. That shop is unpredictable. What if it disappears again? With you in it?” His entire posture said, No. “Or without paying you? They’ve done it before—left people high and dry for orders, for years, and then suddenly they’re back, gowns delivered to the children of those who ordered them, and a bill to match. It’s appalling. Sera, be reasonable.”
He sounded so much angrier than made sense.
“You don’t understand. You don’t care about fashion.” He was an artist—why didn’t he understand? She knew he paid the bills with marketing work. Their apartment in Queens could have fit inside one of the Saunders’ walk-in closets in their Brooklyn Heights high-rise. Sera loved him, but she wanted something more.
“I’ve seen too much of it up close,” he agreed. “Your mother would know what to do.”
He never mentioned Sera’s mother, unless he was truly sad. He glanced at the photo he kept on his bedside table, in an iron frame: the same image, Sera realized, from the shop.
Sera flinched. She didn’t want to make him sad. “I’m sorry, Dad. It’s okay. I can get another internship this summer through the college.”
And she did mean it. She had no real need for that necklace. She meant it right until he wrapped his arms around her, saying, “You’re so much like her. A mirror image.” Then, before she could tell him about the photograph, he turned back to his painting.
Sera ran her fingers across her scarf, feeling the thorns beneath. The face behind her in the mirror could have been her own, today. She had to return. Sera pulled the employment contract from her bag.
He heard the paper rustle, but never turned around, knowing he couldn’t stop her. “Remember, Sera, just because someone hires you doesn’t mean they can make you do anything they want. Or that you owe them.”
Sera’s art-supply pen hovered above the contract. “I’ll remember.” She signed her name and tucked it in her bag, ready to learn everything Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. could teach her, for the Season, at least.
from The Social Season, plate 76. The Butterfly Gown, worn by a Serena (née)_____(unknown) Sebastian to the Spring Charity Gala of 1998. She attended with her sister Vanessa (née) ______ (unknown) Saunders, and soon after married one of the event’s busboys. Saunders herself married the scion of the Saunders soap fortune. The event was notable in that several young women and men were discovered the following morning, on the roof, wearing bacchanalian-styled greenery and nothing more, by hotel staff at The Pierre. Photo by Mrs. Vanessa Saunders. Designers: Dora Unseelie and Beau Unseelie, Sr.
Sera didn’t see much of the inside of the Fashion Institute studio after that. On Monday, she attended class, then rushed through midtown, trying to find the shop. She arrived late, having found Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. wedged awkwardly between the Museum of Modern Art and a high-end residence next door.
“I’m sorry, I thought you’d planned to be in the East Village today,” she wheezed.
Dora patted her hand. “We’d thought so too, but the light is much better here.” She wrote a number on Sera’s palm. “This is the emergency line, do not share it with anyone. If you cannot find us, call.”
Sera memorized it, and then helped Dora carry bolts of shining fabric to the locked doors of the back room. The front door chimed before Dora could open the locks. “New customers,” Beau sang out, and the shop transformed before Sera’s eyes, the shadows growing thicker, the lights higher. She thought she heard birdsong.
Odelle Rankenfall stood beside the bare mannequins, tapping her foot. Her mother held her coat. When Dora and Sera approached them, Odelle grew outraged. “Where is the atelier himself? Now that we’ve found the place, I don’t want to take my fitting with a shopgirl.” She looked straight past Sera, as if she wasn’t there.
“My regrets, I was detained,” Beau said as he appeared. He ushered them back, snapped his fingers, and Sera gasped as Odelle’s dresses appeared on the mannequins.
“Circus stunt,” Odelle murmured to her mother. “How gauche.”
“You would rather wear your other gowns, madame?” Beau said, his smile taut as ever.
“Of course not,” Odelle said. “I’ll have the best, just like Merielle and the twins. Let’s see it.”
She changed into a muslin and, as Dora was helping her into new shoes, gave the shopgirl the slightest kick. Sera bristled. So did Dora, her hands pricking Odelle.
“Mother, tell them to stop torturing me.”
Sera fumed, but Dora pulled her aside. “Our delight is to help each customer find their ideal. We will help her. They will pay. And we will move on.”
Behind them, beyond the locked doors of the back room, sewing machines whirred—Sera realized that was the birdsong sound—and the cutting room scissors went snick snick. Sera’s blood kept time with it all. “Fine. But she’s horrid.”
When Dora smiled, her teeth seemed honed to sharp pins by the lights. “We like horrid, sometimes.” The shopgirl showed Sera how to drape the mångata fabric Odelle had ordered just so, and how to avoid the girl’s sharp heel. The fabric sat perfectly. When Odelle turned in the mirror, the gown they would call “The Water’s Edge” gleamed like a full moon on the ocean.
Sera had never felt so proud as when Beau nodded approvingly in her direction. She noticed the tendril of water seeping from the gown and stooped to clean it up.
“Let it be,” Dora said, her customer-service smile almost beatific. “Let her get used to it. Who knows, she may drown in that dress come next week.”
“You are terrifying,” Sera whispered.
Dora smiled then, for real. “We are, a little, aren’t we?” And she clasped Sera’s hand.
Sera beamed. “We are.”
By midweek, Sera skipped a class. Just the one. All right, two. She’d be back next week, she swore. Besides, inside the busy atelier, with the lights glittering, she’d begun drawing new designs. So many more than she had in her classes. Her fingers danced over the pages of her sketchbook, arraying the croquis in impossible gowns.
Other shops were furious, she’d heard. But they could never find Unseelie Brothers to complain. Designers from around the city took to social media to shout their grievances. Which made the atelier even more desirable. And the shop even busier.
Now and then, Sera passed the workroom door, and pressed her ear against it. The sewing machines never ceased. When the fabric for The Murmuration arrived, she hoped to see the seamstresses and designers at work. But the bolt was so heavy, and swirled so magnificently, the delivery men lost their grip on it and Sera and Dora had to spend several minutes luring the gown-to-be down from the eaves. Dora’s hair tumbled from her bun as they ran to find the birdseed they kept for emergencies. Once the fabric was contained and had been locked behind the thick doors to the back room, Dora caught Sera trying to peer through the lock, and pulled her gently away.
“Have you lost something?”
Someone, Sera wanted to say, but didn’t. She didn’t want Dora to think poorly of her as well.
In the silence, Dora lifted the sketchbook from Sera’s hand and, without asking, turned the pages.
“These are so good, Sera. You have a talent. Sir, come look,” Dora exclaimed. “You do beautiful work!”
Beau approached and pointed out a few things Sera could adjust on a shoulder, at a hem, as Dora looked on.
Sera, despite herself, glowed at the praise. The idea that these designers thought her work was good enough to comment on astounded her. She ran a finger along a table littered with sequins and seed pearls. She touched her necklace as Dora, still flipping through the sketchbook, found Sera’s favorite design. “Oooooh.”
“It’s just all right,” Sera demurred.
“It’s magnificent,” Dora said.
Beau disagreed. “Let me see.” He held out an imperious hand and studied the gown. Then he winked at her. “I knew you were one of us. Let’s make a mock-up of this one. We will call it The Gown of Thorns.”
Sera’s heart pounded. “I don’t even know what fabric to use.” She reached for the sketchbook. She’d been looking forward to drifting the fabric store aisles. Selecting findings. Figuring out transitions from design, to fabric, to form, on her own.
But Dora’s smile worked at her until she grinned too. The shop could certainly show her how to add drama to the gown. It might make the ideal senior project. “Okay.”
“We have just the fabric!” Dora leapt up and ran to the sewing room door. Her enthusiasm rippled the room in light. Sera was, she realized, blissfully happy surrounded by that light. Dora disappeared into the sewing room and left the door ajar. Sera followed. Inside, the machines—old Singers, new 3-D printers, and everything in between—waited, surrounded by fireflies and shadows. “Let’s get to work. We’ll be a fantastic team.” Dora pulled out a seat for each of them and began showing Sera how the atelier worked its magic on fabric and metal.
Before she knew it, Beau was at the door, announcing customers. Rie, arrived for her fitting. The fireflies disappeared.
“But that is days from now,” Sera protested. She looked for her dress, but it was gone. Her stomach rumbled. She was starving.
“Time is a bit strange back here,” Dora smiled with sharp teeth. She pulled Sera back through the door and shut it tight.
From the doorway, Rie waved at Sera. “I’ve missed you! You haven’t answered my texts!”
Sera looked around the shop, confused. Outside, she could clearly see Madison Avenue. When had the shop moved? Her father’s worries swept over her and disappeared again in the face of more pressing concerns: her aunt. Sera and Dora had been so busy working on Sera’s designs, had anyone finished Merielle’s gown? What would Aunt Vanessa say?
When Rie walked past the bare mannequins that afternoon, the muslin shapes glittered; and suddenly three gowns dazzled, draped over their headless forms. A lightning dress. The dress made of swallows in murmuration. And, impossibly, Sera’s new design. The Gown of Thorns.
Sera couldn’t take her eyes off of it. It was perfect. Her hand went to her throat, where the necklace rested. Yes. She would turn the gown in for her final project. It would be glorious.
Mrs. Saunders waited, her foot tapping on the sofa. She cleared her throat until Dora and Sera brought down The Murmuration Gown. Getting Rie into it gown took extra care—the birds’ tiny beaks were sharp.
But once she saw her reflection in the mirror, Rie shook her head. “It’s not right.” Her eyes went back to the mannequins.
“What do you mean? It’s everything we’ve asked for, Merielle.” Mrs. Saunders glared at the room for a moment, before settling her gaze on Sera as the safest person to blame.
Beau’s smile never faded. “Of course, young lady. We can fit you for something else.” He raised an eyebrow at Mrs. Saunders, who sighed and finally nodded. “Do you see anything you like?”
“That one,” Rie’s fingers pointed towards the dress of thorns. Sera’s dress. Sera fought to stay quiet. She didn’t want Rie to have it. That was hers.
But the customer, it is said, is always right.
Sera watched Rie try on her gown. It fit perfectly. The gown that had, Sera thought, been just a sketch not long ago. And then it had been real. And now it was gone. She felt empty inside.
Sera’s aunt beamed at Beau. “What a marvelous design. I do hope you were paying attention when it was made, Sera.”
Beau said nothing, and neither did Sera. Her cousin left the store with Sera’s gown in her arms, barely waving at Sera. “I’ll see you before the ball!” Then her mother tucked her into a cab.
“That was quite profitable!” Beau said. “You have a grand future here, young lady. If you want it.”
Sera’s fingers went to the necklace, even as her eyes drifted to her mother’s photograph. She remembered her father’s words. “My contract ends with the ball,” she murmured, not wanting to get caught up in the shop. She missed the studio and designing dresses the old-fashioned way.
Dora pouted. “Please reconsider. It has been so inspiring having another designer—not just a shopgirl! —here.” She looked at Beau, as if daring him to speak. “We want to keep you.”
“We will renegotiate,” Beau said. The machines in the back room grew louder. We like your work, the machines said to Sera. You should design more. Drop your classes. Stay with us. We have much to teach you. “Perhaps you would like to hear from your mother?”
“How?” Sera whispered.
And Beau showed her a notice of sale, just listed on a couture consignment site: Original Unseelie Bros, Ltd. Butterfly Gown, worn once. Contact Mrs. Vanessa Saunders for listing price.
from The Social Season, plate 112. The Escort’s Silver Cloak—a bespoke item for Mr. James Elandin III, created as a gift for Mr. Michael Blandheim III, who escorted Mr. Elandin’s sister to the Cloisters and Woodlands Ball of 2012. This ball, while highly successful, did not repeat, as only two attendees can vouch for, or remember it occurring at all. Photograph by the Museum of Modern Art, for its collection. Design by D.B. Von Siolagh.
Sera pounded on her aunt’s apartment door until her hand throbbed. When Rie opened it, shocked, saying “Sera, what in the world?” Sera pushed past her cousin, until she found her aunt in her dressing room.
“Where is it? Did you sell it?” Her voice sounded ragged, like she was a child again.
“You’ve been working too hard,” her aunt said. “You should quit that old shop. Go back to classes.”
“They’ve made me quite an offer,” Sera replied. She held up her new contract.
Mrs. Saunders paled. “Rie,” she called. “Leave us.” When Rie obliged and the dressing room door closed, she reached out and took her niece’s hand. “You cannot sign this, Sera. There’s no end to it.”
“Did you sell my mother’s gown? To pay for Rie’s?”
“No,” her aunt finally said. “I took the ad down. I couldn’t bear to part with it, after all. It’s valuable, Sera. But your mother’s memory? Worth so much more.” She turned to the closet and lifted The Gown of Flowers away from its display frame. Behind it, a panel, when pressed, slid open. In the shadows, a butterfly wing fluttered. Then another.
“That’s not yours,” Sera sputtered. She reached out to touch the delicate wings. “What else are you hiding?”
Vanessa Saunders shook her head sadly. “Never accept a contract without knowing your own worth. Your mother gave up everything for this dress, for time with your father. I shouldn’t have kept it from you.” She stepped aside and let Sera take the dress down from its hooks.
The fabric felt so light, and it rustled.
“Occasionally, there are incidents with the dresses. But you will find her there, what’s left of her,” Beau had said, from the doorway of Unseelie Brothers. “You can free her if you like.” He’d handed Sera a seam ripper, and she’d tucked it into her bag.
With her aunt hovering at her side, Sera looked at the gown closely, and realized that these were real, pale white, butterflies. Their wings had words written on them. The creatures had been living on the dress, in her aunt’s closet, the whole time.
She bit back her anger and began to separate the seams. One white butterfly flew free, then another. As the threads broke beneath the seam ripper, butterflies landed on Sera’s shoulders, and in her hair, whispering. Soft wings brushed her temples.
But Sera wasn’t listening to her aunt any longer. Instead, she heard her mother’s voice, telling her the real story. How Serena and her sister Vanessa had worked their way out of the sewing room at the Atelier. How Vanessa had stolen them dresses and snuck them into the ball. And how, despite everything, they had both fallen for mortals. One who could pay for a gown like this, and one who could not. Sam Sebastian probably never understood there was such a price.
Sera’s fingers shook, and a few butterflies began to crumble into dust. Those that didn’t flew wider circles around the room. They swooped over Vanessa, who sat down hard on the bed and stared, unable to speak.
Sera knew now: her mother had been a dressmaker. More than that. An Unseelie. A member of the family. Like Dora and Beau. And now she was leaving Sera. Through tears, Sera went to her aunt’s window and opened it.
“No!” Aunt Vanessa found her voice, but the butterflies were already streaming out into the city. Sera clutched the remaining fabric of the dress to her chest and watched them go.
“I thought I could free her,” she cried.
“You did,” Aunt Vanessa said. Her eyes looked haunted. “That dress took more than she could give. Even as she was welcoming you into the world, she knew this. Serena hid what was left of herself in that gown, as a message to us. To you.”
Sera stared at her. “And you kept it from me.”
“Sera, you must understand. The dresses, they sometimes…do things to the dancers. Good things, often, and well worth it. And some not so good things. The Atelier weaves its fingers into everything during the Season, and everyone comes out changed. If they come out. We were hoping to get away from that. We paid for it.”
“Perhaps she will drown in her own dress,” Dora had said, days ago, about Odelle. She’d meant it.
Sera shuddered. Rie’s dress—Sera’s design—was made of thorns. “How could you risk Rie like this?” What was worth that?
“A future of happiness? A lifetime of successes? Those things are worth a price that we few can afford to pay,” Vanessa said.
“But not everyone can.” Sera knelt on the floor of her aunt’s dressing room, studying the remains of her mother’s gown. By morning, she was covered in pale butterfly dust and tiny threads, and the dress was gone. But Sera felt her mother’s energy coursing through her. She would not go to the ball. She would not disappear. And neither would Rie.
“Rie!” Sera called for her cousin, as her aunt quietly left the room. Before the sun was fully up, Sera had adjusted The Gown of Thorns to her particular specifications.
“I don’t understand what you did, but this is much more comfortable now, thank you!” Rie embraced her. Sera found the clasp for her necklace, undid it, and placed the matching jewelry around her cousin’s neck.
When Rie left the room, Sera spread the new contract Beau had pressed upon her out on the carpet. She took out her cheap plastic pen, and went to work on the pages, writing in new terms. For each design of hers they sold, Sera would gain interest in the shop itself. The same for Dora, for believing in her. No more shopgirls, they.
When Sera returned to the atelier, she signed the contract with a flourish. One small white butterfly fluttered in her dark hair. She didn’t brush it away.
Beau, unsettled by the butterfly, only glanced at the additions. He signed with a shaking hand, and went back to the workroom.
Then Sera posted the store’s emergency number to social media.
By the day of the ball, she’d made twenty designs of her own, sold them all, and Beau was so ecstatic, he set even more stars in the Atelier ceiling.
The Murmuration gown—made of tiny white starlings, that swirl just beyond the viewer’s gaze. Worn by Mrs. Mimi, née Mumford Price, 2022, at the Stolen Hearts Hospital Winter Ball. The event is notable in that several dozen attendees were treated at the hospital after a spate of food poisoning that left them all semi-catatonic, and without memory of the evening. Design by Dora Unseelie.
Seamstresses do not often go to balls. Instead, Sera and Dora watched, exhausted and triumphant, from the floor of the showroom at the center of Unseelie Brothers, Ltd. as their gowns made the Season’s first gala magical. They sipped champagne while the shop’s mirrors showed them revelers entering, curtseying, and beginning to circle the ballroom at The Empire Hotel, in complicated patterns that moved ever faster. When the orchestra picked up the tempo, the dancers became a blur, and the gowns transformed.
The Lighting Gown shocked a dancer’s escort. The Ocean and Moon Gown seemed to grow heavier on Odelle until she had to sit down. She was found drenched in the restrooms, but alive, much later. Dora’s sharp laughter echoed in the empty store.
Sera watched her aunt, beaming, as Rie danced with her escorts. Sera’s gown swirled protectively around her cousin. The tiny stitches Sera had put in among the thorns turned to blossoms, and Rie didn’t suffer a single scratch, nor did her aunt. Sera understood now, her aunt’s fear, her sorrow and guilt. And she wanted none of it for Rie.
Fireflies wove through the store as Sera and Dora watched more Unseelie gowns transport their wearers. Beau joined them, humming along with the orchestra. “My favorite time of all,” he said. “Look how beautiful they are. And they know it. No matter the cost. Meanwhile, look how powerful we’ve grown with so many new clients.” Across the ballroom, dancers fell in love with each other, and with their own reflections. They became what they were wearing, for a moment. If they were lucky. Or forever, if they were not.
But not Rie. Sera had made sure her cousin was safe.
For others, there was a cost. The Talbott boys grew tails and hooves to go with their custom tuxedos. (They woke up the next day with pounding headaches and began trading stocks like the world was on fire.)
As the music ended, the Unseelie court beyond the sewing room doors laughed itself to sleep: the machines finally quiet, the scissors at rest. Sera’s aunt crossed the ballroom, and stepped through a mirror, into the shop. She wore The Gown of Flowers. “I have come to pay what I owe to my niece.” She curtsied deep, before Beau, Dora, and Sera.
Sera helped her down from the mirror. “You could have told me,” she said. “You could have let me see her.”
“I was terrified,” her aunt said. “I’m not any longer.”
A white butterfly circled the darkness above the Atelier, among the fireflies. Sera smiled.
“Perhaps we are all a little terrifying,” Sera agreed. “Thank you for bringing me home. Tell my father, I’ll see him soon.” She sent Aunt Vanessa back to the Fête Noire, her gown shimmering around her until it bloomed again, with black flowers this time. The next day, Mrs. Vanessa Saunders’ transformational gown made page six, and Lillian Talbott was beside herself with jealousy. Sales at the shop increased again.
A week later, Rie returned to class, music in her ears, and a sharp determination to graduate in her mind. Sera submitted The Gown of Thorns as her senior project, and soon after, they walked commencement together, with their families, mortal and not, watching proudly.
And a few days after that, when Beau tried to move the shop, he found that he could not.
“It won’t budge without our permission,” Sera said.
“We’ve sold enough gowns to take a majority interest,” Dora added. “From now on, we’re a team.”
Her laughter echoed around the room, startling The Murmuration off its mannequin. They managed to capture it before its buyer arrived for her fitting that afternoon.
from The Social Season, plate 123. The Gown of Thorns, worn by Ms. Merielle Saunders, twice so far. First at the Fête Noir Charity Ball in 2022; then at the Defenders’ Ball for Workers’ Justice in 2023. No incidents have been reported at any of these balls or events. Designer: Sera Sebastian Unseelie, Unseelie Family, Ltd.
(Editors’ Note: “Unseelie Brothers, Ltd.” is read by Erika Ensign on on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast, 40A.)
© 2021 Fran Wilde